Restaurant Blue Wagon
These days, it’s too often not enough for a restaurant to just have good food. So many places now have so many other things on offer – live music, cooking classes, club cards, wine tastings – in a bid to lure in customers. But the danger with these sorts of restaurants, under the wrong management, is that they can spread themselves so thin that what really should be the main draw – the food, served proficiently in amiable surroundings – becomes less than the main focus. Thankfully, there are restaurants that manage to maintain a social calendar as well as high standards, and Blue Wagon, operating in Vinohrady with improving results, is one of these.
In the months following its opening, I heard quite a few decidedly mixed reports about the place. Going there for several recent visits, however, proved a rewarding experience: solidly quality dishes with just enough flair to be quite memorable, and at prices that felt reasonable for a nice meal out. It’s also somewhere that has that sort of multifunctional atmosphere just as conducive for a business lunch or dinner as for a date; at lunchtime the other day, I was comfortably clacking away on my laptop using the restaurant’s Wi-Fi while the pair next to me flirted voraciously over a quick succession of wine top-ups.
The location is ideal for such versatility, one block from náměstí Míru. The single dining room makes use of a white banquette against the wall for several tables, spaced politely well enough apart, and tall potted plants provide a bit of discretion among the floor seating. The décor is soothing in blond wood and white, with black-and-white paintings on the wall, although the brightly lit waiting area by the door, complete with chairs and a spread of magazines, felt a bit like the entrance to a spa – not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. The only drawback in the atmosphere was the constant Muzak playing, which at its best moments verged on loungey but mainly just brought to mind (at least, this reviewer’s) strolling down a wide, air-conditioned supermarket aisle in the U.S.
Blue Wagon has quite a good selection of wines, with many options from the Stapleton & Springer winery in Moravia; bottles start at around 390 CZK. The winery was featured recently on the restaurant’s calendar of events, with a wine tasting and paired degustation menu hosted by Jaroslav Springer himself. We tried a bottle of the 2011 Reisling from the Šamšula winery (370 CZK), along with a large bottle of San Benedetto mineral water (59 CZK).
On an evening visit, we were given a basket of bread and spreads – a chive cream cheese, fresh butter, and a celery mousse, all of which were better than the dense, forgettable slices of white and brown bread. The waiter had presented it saying it was an amuse bouche, but it fell under the couvert of 29 CZK each that appeared on the bill.
At lunchtime another day, we were given an amuse bouche of roe deer pate, free this time, which is also available as a starter. The appetizer version (139 CZK) had the advantage of coming with a drizzle of meaty stock on the side, which added the right amount of moisture to the crumbly, fresh pate, sheathed in a thin layer of fat. Three halves of pickled pearl onion dotted the line of stock, and a small side salad had a nice mustardy dressing that proved more than an afterthought.
Currently, the menu is seasonably game-centric, with only one vegetarian option, a mushroom risotto. The printed menu at the restaurant says to ask the waitstaff for other options, and several are listed on the website (as well as a selection of chewing bones for “dog pets”); for those unsure on the spot of whether they want meat or veg, though, this poses an inconvenience, let alone the awkwardness of asking after the prices of each item. It was also a shame that there weren’t more seafood options – aside from an entrée of baked eel – as the single seared scallop presented in the creamy cress soup (145 CZK) was incredible, supple with a hint of char on top, and could have easily starred as a main attraction with several of its friends.
Another soup, oxtail broth with meat ravioli (69 CZK), also left us wanting a plate of more: While the sturdy broth, hinting at miso and bobbing with confetti balls of zucchini, squash and potato, was fine, the triangular glutinous pockets stuffed with herbed meat – more resembling dumplings – went too quickly.
From the entrees, it was hard to choose a favorite, although the Beef Wellington – which happens to be the most expensive item on the menu at 449 CZK – was a sure standout. All of the entrees include tailored sides, which helps add value for money, and this particular plate was heaped with a pile of fluffy, smooth mashed potatoes, three crisp stalks of asparagus and three slivers of buttered squash. The beef itself was cooked perfect at medium, juicy and pink, and the flaky pastry held together through each bite, with a thin layer of sautéed mushrooms, herbs and green peppercorns and a stratum of creamy foie gras.
Likewise, the delicate confit of veal (325 CZK) was tender and juicy, pink in the center, with a rich jus around it. It paired expertly with a mound of fluffy couscous studded with chopped black olives, as well as several sundried tomatoes. It made for an interesting combination of earthy and sweet. The entrée of wild boar (315 CZK) also benefited from a skilled accompaniment, in the form of a wedge of gratin potatoes and a baked round of endives, crisp and savory on top with a crust of tart Parmesan and an oozing of ricotta, both of which went well with the thick, garlic- and red-wine-infused gravy and the thick slices of boar. The meat needed only a hint of the knife for cutting.
Duck was also treated with precision: Cooked to medium, as requested, the duck held its own in a meaty jus countered by three plump raspberries (285 CZK). One of the sides, an almond croquette, was incredibly good, a crispy, chewy hash brown of crushed nuts and Parmesan. A tower of cubed, sautéed vegetables paled in comparison; I would have preferred an extra croquette for mopping up the gravy.
Dessert didn’t disappoint, either. The millefeuille (117 CZK) was a creative take, with spoonfuls of zingily fresh raspberry sorbet and vanilla ice cream topped with a triangles of buttery wafers.
Modern restaurants may have a full plate for themselves in keeping up with the multidimensional expectations of current trends, but Blue Wagon seems to be handling it substantially well, with only a few minor oversights.
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